Charles Petzold

Reading “Autobiography of an Execution”

January 13, 2011
New York, N.Y.

David R. Dow is a Houston-based death-penalty lawyer, which means that he tries to save people scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas, or at least to delay their executions by a month at a time. In The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve Books, 2010), Dow freely admits that most of his clients are guilty of fairly horrific crimes. But sometimes — by his count, seven times out of a hundred or more inmates he's represented (p. 254) — he believes that the prisoner on death row is innocent of the crime. This book is mostly the story of one of those cases.

The Autobiography of an Execution has a built-in but apparently unavoidable flaw: Due to attorney-client privilege and confidentiality, Dow is legally mandated to disguise the names and facts of the cases discussed in this book. We are forced to accept his word about the cases with no ability to perform our own research to get a broader perspective. The book is also infuriating in that Dow seems to have an ego as big as Texas itself, and frequently peppers the book with the minutiae of his family life and even his dreams.

Despite these flaws, the book has a strong narrative drive. As the hours and minutes tick away, as appeals and filings are rejected, we share with lawyers who have lost all further avenues of recourse the vivid horrors of an unstoppable execution of an innocent man.

The Autobiography of an Execution is a powerful cry of anguish from the trenches of the battle against capital punishment. Along with the essential New Yorker article about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, The Autobiography of an Execution persuades the reader of a simple fact that should disrupt the sleep of even strong death-penalty advocates:

The state of Texas executes the innocent.